August 11, 2020

The Niche

Knoepfler lab stem cell blog

Stem cells for arthritis: are we there yet?

Can stem cells treat the different forms of arthritis that plague 100s of millions of people across the globe?

arthritis stem cells
An arthritic knee. Can stem cells help arthritis?

A couple years back I did a post in my disease focus series on the potential of stem cells to be used as treatments for osteoarthritis (OA). OA affects almost 30 million people in the U.S. alone. It leads to loss of cartilage in joints such as the knee, where a person can end up with bone on bone (see image at right).

Almost 1% of all people will get the other main form of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, during their lives.

The stem cell field continues to advance and I remain convinced that OA as well as rheumatoid arthritis will in the future be successfully treated using stem cell technology.

There is reason for optimism. For example, there are currently 51 clinical trials listed for the search “arthritis” and “stem cells” on the federal database.

Along with the 38 papers in the Pubmed literature database with “stem cells” and “arthritis” in their titles, this gives realistic reason for hope.

How might stem cells treat OA and/or rheumatoid arthritis?

There are two main possibilities.

First, stem cells could be used to replace lost or diseased cartilage in the joints. In other words, stem cells would regenerate a healthy (or at least healthier) joint through actual tissue growth. This is the most promising hope for treating OA using stem cells.

Second, stem cells might be able to be used to tamp down the overactive immune system and inflammation at least in part responsible for joint destruction, particularly for rheumatoid arthritis. Stem cells appear to have immune modulating functions that act in an anti-inflammatory manner. One particular type of stem cells, mesenchymal stem cells (MSCs) seem especially promising in this area.

I know that for-profit stem cell clinics are already selling stem cell treatments, usually involving MSCs, for arthritis, but I say buyer beware at this point. Those treatments are expensive and highly experimental in my opinion. Patients considering such treatments should ask themselves if they want to be human guinea pigs.

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